Around this time of year, universities the world over are announcing, “welcome back students.” Many companies are saying goodbye to their interns with much less enthusiasm. After three or four months of instruction and mentoring, most of our interns are carrying out tasks equivalent to any other entry-level engineer. Now that the interns are leaving, who’s going to fill those staffing needs? My attitude toward the end of the summer has significantly changed since my own internship experiences.
I had five different summer internships while I was in college. I guess I wasn’t all that indispensable to any of those employers. It never occurred to me to return to the same job. I valued the diversity of experiences that I got while still trying to decide exactly what I wanted to do for a living.
My first internship was in research. I worked with a professor who was monitoring conventional highway bridges loaded to their maximum design capacity – using gravel-filled 11-axle semi-trucks and M-1 Abrams tanks. My role was to help set up the testing equipment and then hold the stop/go sign to block traffic while the tests were conducted. One day, while loading the bridge with two tanks and two semis, the researchers noticed a major jump in their readings. I had to deal with some really upset drivers who had to wait half an hour before the team felt it was ok to remove the tanks and reopen the bridge.
Feeling that I had developed some skills with upset motorists, I spent my next summer working for the department of transportation. Since I worked on projects near my home in rural Michigan, the projects were not spectacular. I learned how to take density measurements on the soil sub-base and kept track of all the small tasks that were completed by the contractors. I learned a lot about negotiating with contractors and making real-world decisions from an unorthodox but reliable manager – probably best described as a kindred spirit of “the Dude” from the movie The Big Lebowski. (You need to see this movie, at least a dozen times before it really sinks in.)
By the next summer, my resume was starting to look pretty good – some previous work experience, the right course work and lots of extra-curricular activities. I was able to land a job with the company doing the steel and concrete inspection at Ford Field – the new Detroit Lions football stadium. My inspection duties required climbing the high steel with the iron workers to check weld quality and bolt tightness. A lot of this work was done 120’ in the air. The steel lifting operation set a record – over 2,000 tons picked at one time. This was also my first real experience reading shop drawings, the fabricator’s drawings that detail each piece of a steel structure. Navigating the drawings was as difficult as navigating the site.
The next summer I finally got an office job. I was put to work right away using my knowledge of shop drawings. Design consultants have to review and approve the detailer’s shop drawings to make sure they comply with the design intent. They also appreciated my background with bolted and welded connections, so I helped create some Excel and Mathcad worksheets to streamline the process.
Five years after starting my journey through the civil engineering profession, I finally landed my dream job. I knew that I wanted a mixture of field work and in-office design. During my first summer in Chicago, I was able to work on US Cellular field (where the White Sox play), Miller Park (Milwaukee Brewers) and a major new WWII U-boat exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry.
Eventually, I finished school and arrived at my current job, where I had previously interned. Over the past few years, I’ve been involved in hiring and training summer interns. It has been an interesting reversal of roles. I can appreciate the challenges and annoyances faced by our interns – like tediously folding drawings and searching for more work. At the same time, I’ve realized that I’m guilty of assigning some silly tasks – like having an intern make me labels and put them in all of my reference books.
Busy work aside, it’s pretty clear that summer internships provide a mutually beneficial relationship between the student and the employer. Unfortunately, few civil engineering companies have the resources to provide a comprehensive co-op program. Instead, students have to be very pro-active in finding and making the best of their summer experiences, and I suppose that process presents a beneficial experience in itself.
To all the students logging in, welcome back. I hope you had a great summer. I’d like to hear about your best and worst internship experiences. Also, please don’t hesitate to send me your questions and comments. Let me know what topics are most important to you, and I’ll try my best to touch on all of them.